Ritual Washing, Mindfulness, and New Beginnings (Exodus 30:17-21)
In this verse, part of the parasha called Ki Tisa, Moses is commanded to make a brass pedestal and washing tub in which to place the water with which Aharon, his sons, and their decendants will wash their hands and feet before prayer and sacrifice – “so that they die not”.
Why would they be risking death were they not to wash? Perhaps the meaning is related to spiritual death, not physical death. Perhaps people need to prepare themselves mentally before they engage in a spiritual task and the washing provides a means for “mindfulness”, for focusing on what they are about to do, emotionally and cognitively engaging before they actually begin the prayer and/or sacrifice. Being so totally engaged before beginning may allow them to connect immediately with the depths of spiritual experience that is to be had in prayer. The washing represents, perhaps, a physical boundary between “before prayer” and “in prayer” states of mind without which, there may be no “life”, no energy in the connection with the spirituality of the event.
Similarly, before making the blessing over the Sabbath challah, we wash our hands and then there is no talking until the bread has been blessed and tasted. Washing our hands separates us from others around us and provides a private little space within which we can each open up to the spirituality of the brief momentary experience of blessing and partaking of the challah.
This reminds me of other rituals we have – such as the bedtime rituals of children that help them to separate from the activities of the day and prepare themselves mentally for giving themselves over to sleep.
Alternatively, we use the term, “wash my hands” to mean separating from something or someone with negative influence over us: “I’ve washed my hands of that man!”, for example, meaning, “I’ve put him out of my life”. And here, in this sense, washing of hands seems similar to the religious Jews’ washing of hands upon waking every morning, to bring his or her soul back to the very fingertips after it had ventured out of the body during the night of sleep. In other words – cleaning out the spaces of “tumah”, impurity, within our bodies, our selves.
And perhaps this latter is also related to mindfulness – we wash to rid ourselves of impurities, whether these are impurities in the religious sense or the impurities that negatively affect our lives in the secular sense – the bad habit that we wash our hands of, the unhealthy relationship that we wash our hands of, etc.
Washing our hands of the “impurity” implies that we are mindful of the process of saying good-bye to that from which it is best that we part. We may have to repeatedly “wash our hands” before we are comfortable with the separation – and here we come back to the parasha: each time the Cohen is to approach the alter, he is to wash his hands (sorry, only men can do this in the Torah).
Each and every time. No matter how many times he approaches the altar, he is to wash his hands each time anew. In the same way, each time we renew our vow to ourselves to stay free of the unhealthy habit or person, we need to “wash our hands of it” again and again and again, until that habit or person is no longer “a place” that we visit. . . because we will have moved on in life to a new place.